What is Americana?
I think that… maybe… I’ve finally figured it out.
You see… most definitions and debates tend toward pigeonholing the music itself. The actual definition as found in Webster’s simply calls it, “a genre of American music having roots in early folk and country music.” The fact that the above sentence is even included in Webster’s at all is a testament to all the work the Americana Music Association and its members have done to promote the genre over the last two decades, and is probably as succinct and accessible a way to depict the music as possible. It’s the definition of a dictionary definition.
Of course, it leaves a lot of things up for debate as well. Is this band too country? Is that one too pop? What about blues and bluegrass? Folk? Southern Rock? Does Texas play outside of Texas? I’ve been dragged into (and instigated) all of these arguments many times over. I’ve gotten quite heated over a few of these things once or twice as well.
After spending this past week in Nashville at the Americana Music Conference and Festival, however, I’m convinced that none of that matters… at least, not as much as we might think.
The community that exists around this music… these artists… this festival is unlike any that I’ve ever been a part of. I’ve been working in radio with Americana artists, labels, and promoters for nearly 15 years now, and nearly all of them have been wonderful to work with. They’re the people I’m happy to reconnect with and swap stories with each year when I come back to town.
The people who gravitate toward making, sharing, promoting, and listening to this music just seem to be good decent people who are in it for all the right reasons. It’s a feeling I’ve had for some time, but several things that I witnessed or that happened to me this week just made it all the more clear.
These are a just a few definitions of Americana that have nothing to do with the music, but may do more do define it than any argument over genre lines ever could:
Americana is Lilly Hiatt asking me about my daughter when I ran into her at The Mercy Lounge. She didn’t ask how her record was doing at the station or anything business related. She asked about my five-year-old kid who she had only met once over a month ago… and she asked about her by name.
Americana is Trisha Gene Brady from the Black Lillies loaning a guitar to Raul Malo so he could go on the air with Chuck Taylor from KHYI and play a song with Whitney Rose. It’s also Trisha subsequently geeking out about watching Raul play her guitar.
Americana is other stations like KHYI and WRLT letting me invade their space and their studios to record interviews that will appear on my station (not theirs) because we’re all working toward the same goal of promoting the same music.
Americana is Doug Seegers staying out well past midnight to watch The Hello Strangers play their showcase at City Winery on Saturday night. Doug had only met the Strangers backstage before the show and had wrapped up his own set several hours earlier.
Americana is Doug Seegers deciding he had gotten to know sisters Brechyn Chace and Larisssa Chace-Smith from The Hello Strangers well enough to change their name to The Hello Friends and shouting that fact to the gathered crowd at the venue.
Americana is Doug Seegers.
Americana is walking in to The Basement to see emerging songwriter Ryan Culwell perform and seeing other songwriters like Robbie Hecht, Caroline Spence, & James Wilson from Sons of Bill all there to catch the set too. And they weren’t just there for something to do. They were there because they all were friends with Ryan and respect his work.
Americana is Sam Lewis offering me the use of his car and shuttling me around East Nashville when my own car broke down on Saturday afternoon.
Americana is everyone from the gals in Underhill Rose to the President of Thirty Tigers offering to do the same when it looked like I might be stuck auto-less for longer than I was.
Americana is Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch playing electronic table top ice hockey.
Americana is scheduling a 15 minute interview with Dave Cobb and having it turn into lunch and nearly an hour of just hanging out, talking music, and swapping stories. It’s also running into Dave later in the week and him calling me over to say hi and ask how my week was going.
Americana is conducting interviews with 15 artists in four days and having each one completely lock in on my questions and answer them with depth and honesty.
Americana is having cool moments with those same artists after the tape stops rolling… Lindi Ortega taking a selfie to send to my daughter… Patty Griffin signing a CD for my wife… Josh Ritter talking about the finer points of hip hop and the remix artist, Girl Talk.
Americana is seeing other moments… smaller, personal moments from some of these same people that I don’t need to mention here, but that show me what kind of people they really are.
I don’t say all these things to drop names, or talk about what fun I had or things I did this week. I say them to illustrate the type of people who we work with within the genre. I say them because I bet a ton of other people who attended the conference this week had similar experiences as well. I say them because I also bet these stories don’t exist in the same volume at other conferences and industry gatherings like they do here.
None of these artists I mentioned were under any obligation to do the things they did… for me or for anybody else. Do you think Dave Cobb needs to be that nice to me? Does Patty Griffin… or Gillian Welch… or Gretchen Peters… or Mojo Nixon… or any of the other people I had positive interactions with this week? They don’t.
I still have to worry about which artists and sounds belong in my playlist at WDVX every week. So do KHYI and WRLT. Odds are I’ll play some artists they don’t, and they’ll play some artists I don’t. Same with WNCW and KNBT and Outlaw Country and every other Americana station and show that is out there now. We all have different audiences and different sounds, and the questions of which artists are right for which outlets will continue.
But setting a station playlist is not defining an entire genre. There are bands on the Americana chart that don’t work for me. There are others who can’t sniff the charts, but do very well on our station. Every other station in the format has a list of artists they can cite from each of those categories as well.
What is Americana music?
Maybe I’m done trying to define it by sound or genre lines or my own personal tastes.
Maybe it’s something as simple as good people making good music for good reasons.
If you’re a good person with a good song, come have a seat at the table.
If you’re already at the table, feel free to share a few of your own stories as well.